Though many 2016 films packed an emotional punch, few were as politically charged as the meditation on Britain's welfare state, I, Daniel Blake. When this year's Oscars nominations were announced, Ken Loach's film was a surprise omission, especially after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes on top of nominations at the British Independent Film Awards and BAFTAs.
Every sharp tug at the heart strings in the story of fictional employment benefits seeker, Daniel Blake, is amplified by its authenticity. Daniel is a 59-year-old joiner from Newcastle in the North East of England, who suffers a heart attack in work and is told in no uncertain terms to rest up by medical professionals.
The bureaucracy of Britain's welfare state has other plans though, and Daniel is forced to jump through hoops, to search for work and tick boxes — literal and metaphorical — in order to receive the support he desperately needs.
Along the way, Daniel befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a fellow victim of the harsh nature of the state's system, a mother-of-two who has been re-housed by the government to the North of England, miles away from her nearest and dearest in London. Through the despair, the pair's friendship is a glowing emblem of humanity and support in challenging times.
Due to its raw depiction of Daniel's and Katie's ordeal, there's no doubt that the film has had a significant impact, sparking controversy on both sides of the political spectrum in the UK. But is the state of the welfare state really that bad? What is the #IDanielBlake true story?
Broken Britain And The Age Of Austerity
I, Daniel Blake focuses on those unlucky enough to be forced into unemployment, a symptom of a post-recession Britain. Often referred to as the age of austerity (or Broken Britain in some circles), signs of the time include high unemployment rates, zero hour contracts and savage governmental cuts.
Daniel is a humble and honest man who has fallen through the cracks, the victim of a system that reduces those in need to a mere statistic, sacrificing genuine concern for welfare in exchange for financial cutbacks. Worryingly, there are a huge number of civilians who face similar troubles to Daniel in real life.
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Those neglected, mistreated or forgotten are often a byproduct of heavily criticized "welfare sanctions." Such restrictions on welfare payments affect more than 1 million of those who claim unemployment benefits, with huge consequences; payment can be withheld if the person in question doesn't meet certain conditions to show they are actively searching for work — a struggle highlighted by I, Daniel Blake.
While upon first glance that seems like a good idea, the problem lies with those who are genuinely unfit to work, such is the case with Daniel. Between 2010 and 2015, 24 percent of benefit claimants received a sanction, which could result in the claimant losing up to £300 ($375). However, research has shown that many vulnerable people "fall through the safety net," with evidence that the consistency of the application of sanctions varies hugely across the country.
In an interview with The Guardian, Labour MP Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions committee, expressed his concern at such sanctions, including the fit-to-work test that Daniel undertakes in the movie. He said:
"We do not know how many people are being pushed permanently outside the benefits system, for example, leading to some being totally disconnected from both work and welfare, and left destitute."
Food Banks: Food For Thought
On top of those who aren't fit to work but get punished by the system, there are those who rely on food banks. These are non-profit organizations that provide food to people who can't afford to feed themselves or their families — often the result of delays in payments of housing or disability benefits, through no fault of their own.
One particularly distressing scene shows Katie's journey to a food bank while feeble from starvation, a disheartening event that is becoming more and more common. Prior to the financial crisis in 2008, food banks were rarely used in the UK. Fast forward to 2016, and the number has reached a record high, with over 1 million packages supplying around 554,000 people. While those figures alone are high, they don't include independent organizations responsible for providing around half of emergency food in the UK.
But it's not just unemployment that leads to such issues; zero hour contracts also contribute to this bleak landscape. The much maligned forms of employment serve no guarantee of work, and cause employees to earn much less money, with few legal rights if anything goes wrong. More than 900,000 workers in the UK are on zero hour contracts.
Unfortunately, these disturbing trends show no sign of slowing down. The Conservative government plan to cut a further £3 billion in welfare by 2020.
Why Is 'I, Daniel Blake' Such An Important Film?
Loach's socialist film has been referred to as propaganda, but the trouble is, these events really are happening on a daily basis. People are suffering. Consequently, the relevance of I, Daniel Blake is twofold: It helps to provide a raw, humanistic depiction of how welfare cuts impact lives, while also dispelling myths and false perceptions perpetrated by the media.
Such is the importance of the film that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn urged Prime Minister Theresa May to watch the film to gain insight into how cuts are affecting masses of people. He is also encouraging Labour members to watch the film and use it as a catalyst to gain support against further cuts on disability benefits.
In terms of misrepresentation, those on unemployment benefits have been stigmatised as "scroungers" — people who exploit the system and choose the option of unemployment out of laziness.
These misleading media representations influence the public consensus. A 2013 study revealed that the British public believe 24 per cent of the welfare budget is fraudulently claimed. The real figure? Just 0.7 per cent, a total of £1.2 billion. Although that sounds a lot, compared to the £30 billion tax gap in the UK (an estimated $5 billion of that due to tax avoidance), that amount begins to look miniscule.
I, Daniel Blake is more than just a film. It's a political tool, and a hopeful cause for change in the fifth wealthiest country in the world, a wealthy country where a fifth of children arrive at school feeling hungry.
The Oscars overlooked I, Daniel Blake. Hopefully the politicians won't.
Should I, Daniel Blake have been nominated for an Oscar?